Cassini flies high to view Saturn’s rings again

The change in the spacecraft’s orbital angle has allowed scientists to revisit the propeller features in the planet’s rings.
By and | Published: July 10, 2012 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
These three Cassini images show a propeller-shaped structure created by an unseen moon in Saturn’s A ring. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Cornell
It’s been nearly two years since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has had views like those it is now enjoying of Saturn’s glorious rings. These views are possible again because Cassini has changed the angle at which it orbits Saturn and now regularly passes above and below Saturn’s equatorial plane. Steeply inclined orbits around the Saturn system also allow scientists to get better views of the poles and atmosphere of Saturn and its moons.

Cassini’s recent return of ring images has started to pay off. A group of scientists has restarted the imaging team’s studies of the famous propeller features. These features are actually small, longitudinally limited orbiting gaps in the rings that are cleared out by objects smaller than known moons but larger than typical ring particles. Matt Tiscareno from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and colleagues had been following these objects for several years but haven’t seen them in the past two because Cassini’s orbits were unfavorable. Because some of the propellers have been seen again in the new images exactly where models predicted they would be, scientists believe they are seeing some old friends again.

Scientists are eagerly awaiting images of the polar regions of the planet and its moons that also will come from this change in perspective.

“We’re entering a new episode in Cassini’s exploratory voyage through the Saturn system,” said Carolyn Porco from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These new ring results are an early harbinger of great things to come. So watch this space!”